The origins of the bucket list

What makes you get up in the morning when you know the end is near?

This very question looms over Rob Reiner’s 2007 film The Bucket List. Set in the present-day United States, Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman) and Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) are two men diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, who meet in the hospital ward. For fun, Chambers writes a bucket list a list of activities he wishes to do before he dies. The two then take a road trip, in hopes to cross out this list.

Perhaps what is most intriguing about the term ‘bucket list’ is, despite being popularized through the film, the credit goes to screenwriter Justin Zackham who had created his own list almost a decade prior, in 1999, and called it, ‘Justin’s List of Things to Do Before I Kick the Bucket,’ he later shortened it to ‘Justin’s Bucket List’.

There are claims that the phrase was coined prior to the film, but the Oxford English Dictionary found no evidence supporting this theory.

The undertones of death are in part because the phrase originated from the idiom ‘to kick the bucket.’ Dating back to the Middle Ages, executions were performed by tying a noose around the prisoner’s neck, while they stood on an overturned bucket. The bucket was later kicked after the prisoner was hanged. Not quite the bucket list that Chambers and Cole pictured.

The film’s success brought the phrase into common parlance. Its natural and idiomatic sounds have entrenched the phrase into many travellers’ consciousness. Some imagine it as a wish list that fills up the bucket, giving the phrase a new metaphorical meaning.

The idea behind the bucket list, places one wants to see, experiences one wishes to have, and successes one desires to accomplish before dying, has permeated into the mind of every adventure-seeker. So much so that there are now books that spur new desires and ambitions. From Victoria Ward’s The Bucket List: Places to Find Peace and Quiet, to Richard Madden’s The Great British Bucket List, there exist numerous tools for filling one’s bucket list by examining the contents of another’s. iPhone’s iWish app allows you to compile your list of life goals with a swipe of a finger – their suggestions range from “Go White-Water Rafting” to “Staying in an Underwater Hotel.”

Why do so many travellers keep a bucket list? To reflect on their hopes, the person they aspire to be, and the legacy they wish to leave. Doing so with an understanding that life is unpredictable, and that death is proximally inevitable can be a sober reckoning for anyone.

Nonetheless, making a bucket list gives me excitement and motivation. It helps me visualize my travel goals before starting them. My bucket list pushes my boundaries, and inspires me to live outside my comfort zone by focusing on things that are important to me.

Undoubtedly, compiling a bucket list and venturing out to do what is on them has the power to induce wonder for all those willing to see.


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Monique Santoso

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May 2022
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